Volume III Number 2, June 1996

Assistive Technology And Learning Disabilities

Carolyn Gardner
Linn-Benton Community College


Schools in the United States, both K-12 and postsecondary institutions, are struggling to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of students with learning disabilities. The 1989 figures from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that almost 2 million K-12 school children or 50% of the children receiving special education services are identified as having learning disabilities. (11th Report to Congress, 1989) These increased numbers of students with disabilities are now also impacting postsecondary educational institutions. Reforms in science and mathematics education have led to the development of national curriculum and assessment standards. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) have mandated academic access in all areas of education for students with learning disabilities (Stinson, 1993).

Books on learning disabilities such as those by Vogel (Vogel, 1993) and Wong (Wong, 1991) and literature searches on accommodations for students taking mathematics and science give little insight in how to accommodate the learning needs of these students. Assistive technologies are an excellent way to improve access, but some of these don't work as well for science and mathematics because formulas and numbers complicate the translation process.

The focus of this paper must be restricted and will concentrate on mathematics education. This is the core of the information access problem, so if mathematics can be made accessible, all scientific information should be accessible. Not all learning disabilities will be treated fully in this short paper. In particular, students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are not discussed because different techniques from those that are the focus of this paper are necessary to meet their needs.

It is difficult to classify math disabilities. Tentative groups are (1) the visual-spatial group who have an adequate "sense of number" and know basic facts but have errors in writing of numbers, regrouping, and spatial activities (2) poor logico-mathematical group who have deficits in nonverbal concepts, meaning, or inner language. This leads to not knowing when to calculate and which operations to use. (3) language comprehension problems group. This leads to difficulty with math concepts because of confusion caused by symbols and mathematical terminology. (4) the group who has frequent, inconsistent fact errors and some inconsistent procedural errors. They have some difficulty with the multiplication tables. Most are considered dyslexic with auditory perceptual and memory deficits. (Johnson & Blalock, 1987). Unfortunately because of the many difficulties that students encounter when trying to learn mathematics, math course requirements are often waived at the postsecondary level. The student's failure to succeed during high school is often used as evidence of the disability.


It is unfair to waive the mathematics requirements. Instead accommodations should be made to assist the students to succeed in these courses. More research needs to be done to evaluate which accommodations are effective, but it should also be remembered that students with learning disabilities benefit from good teaching techniques. New concepts should be presented both visually and auditorily, and students should be given hands-on experience. The use of manipulatives helps the tactile learners and helps to create understanding of mathematical concepts instead of rote learning. Actually these techniques help all students and are being endorsed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

To assist students with learning disabilities to achieve understanding and fluency of math facts, Cecil Mercer of the University of Florida has designed math workbooks to teach math concepts by using a concrete-representational-abstract (CRA) teaching sequence. Implicit in this method of instruction is an emphasis on teaching students to understand the concepts of mathematics prior to memorizing facts, algorithms, and operations. Instruction begins at the concrete level with students using three-dimensional objects to solve computational problems. At the representational level, drawings are used to solve the problems. Finally at the abstract level, the student looks at the computation problem and tries to solve it without using objects or drawings. The results from field testing the Strategic Math Series indicate that students with learning disabilities were able to (a)acquire computational skills across facts, (b) solve word problems with and without extraneous information,(c) create word problems involving facts, (d) apply a mnemonic strategy to difficult problems, (e)increase rate of computation, and (f) generalize math skills across examiners, settings, and tasks.

Students with learning disabilities need to learn the math basics and problems solving techniques. Smith and Rivera stress that students with learning disabilities need to be allowed adequate time to master math skills and that instruction should match the skill level. Students tend to have difficulty with math because of their slower response rate and because of inefficient selection and use solution strategies (Wong, 1991). If they are unable to master these concepts in the early elementary grades, then the problem intensifies and in addition a "math phobia" is developed.


There are several reasons why the use of assistive technologies is an attractive accommodation. The persistence of learning disabilities is becoming an accepted fact (Johnson & Blalock, 1987). Many of these students have received remedial assistance throughout their education. To be able to function as independent individuals and to take full advantage of their potential and capabilities, they need a way to compensate for their weaknesses. Assistive technologies are often the ideal solution.

In all disciplines typical accommodations for students with learning disabilities include such things as taped books, readers, additional time, and scribes. Raskind and Scott in their chapter, "Technology for Postsecondary Students with Learning Disabilities," support the use of assistive technologies. Although many different types of assistive technologies are listed, the only one for math education is the talking calculator (Vogel, 1993). The entire issue of the Learning Disability Quarterly of Spring 1995 is dedicated to "Technology for Persons with Learning Disabilities" but contains nothing at all specifically relevant to math or science.

Though there are positive reports about the successful use of assistive technologies for accommodations in other subject matter, little research has been compiled for math and science education. Some of the assistive technologies which students with visual disabilities use to provide access to textbooks could also be used in mathematics and science. The problem, of course, is that most optical character recognition (OCR) programs can only recognize text characters. Graphs and symbols can't not be read by recognition systems and therefore cannot be listened to using synthesized speech. Though students could use taped versions from Recording from the Blind and Dyslexic or use human readers, reading mathematics textbooks takes special skill that not all practiced readers have.

One of the major problems that dyslexic students have is the reversal of numbers and the inability to copy numbers correctly. Voice recognition systems are used to help students who have similar problems in other subject areas, but it is difficult to "dictate" a formula to a computer. Solving problems by dictating to a scribe is a time consuming and frustrating process.

Students with learning disabilities usually enjoy using computers. The computer allows students to drill and practice for an indefinite amount of time in an unthreatening environment. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find programs with an instructional component. The drill and practice programs can be beneficial if the student is guided through the correct problem solving steps and receives explanations for incorrect answers. Programs which provide auditory cues or the use of sound and visual instructions simultaneously would be an excellent choice. Programs should be easy to use with consistent on screen directions.


As technologies improve, it is possible to include accessibility in their design. Some publishers are becoming sensitive to the problems that students with learning disabilities and other disabilities have in accessing textbooks. Some textbooks are now available on CD-Rom. If these books also provide audio access, it would be an excellent accommodation. Some postsecondary mathematical textbook publishers are now providing video taped lessons to accompany their textbooks. These also could be an excellent accommodation. The University of Surrey in England is developing a physics course on the computer. This course uses computer simulations of experiments, allows branching to other resources if the student needs additional information or practice, and has an on-line glossary of terms. Courses such as these have great potential for providing access for students with disabilities.

Dr. William Mead at Adaptive Network Solutions, Inc. is leading an exciting new project to develop three prototypical applications of Artificial Neural Networks (NN) to teach basic arithmetic facts to students with learning disabilities. The three applications are symbiotic: a student simulator, a student assessor, and a CAI training (tutor) module. Dr. Mead is applying the principles he has used in neural networking to develop software which will respond "intelligently" and adjust to the student's behavior or responses. An advisory panel of experts helped establish some guidelines for the math tutor. The advisory panel is currently getting the "research-prototype." For more information about this project look at the web site: http://www.ansr.com/ansr

The Oregon State University Science Access project led by Dr. John Gardner is further developing T.V. Raman's AsTeR, an audio formatting program, and developing an auditory graphing calculator. These applications are primarily designed for use by students with visual impairments. For more information on this project look at the web site: http://dots.physics.orst.edu Students whose learning disabilities effect visual perception would also find some of these assistive technologies useful. The author has recently begun a National Science Foundation sponsored project to use simultaneous visual and audio formatted information on computers to teach math concepts to students with learning disabilities at Linn Benton Community College.


In the 1980's a dramatic increase in the number of students with learning disabilities attending colleges and universities has been witnessed. According to the Higher Education and Adult Training for People with Handicaps (HEATH) Resource Center of the American Council on Education (ACE), the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen with disabilities attending college increased threefold between 1978 and 1985 (Vogel,1993). At the same time society demands that graduates have an increased knowledge of math and science to compete in the job market. If students with disabilities are to have full access to the job market of the future, they need to be provided accommodations so that they can learn mathematics and science.


Heath Resource Center
One Dupont Circle, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20036

National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center
1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009


EASI http://www.rit.edu./~easi/easisem.html

LINCS National Resource Directory


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